Most fire departments have access to resources for members and extended family requiring mental health and behavioral support. Traditionally, this has meant that a mechanism is provided to individuals or families who need support when a tipping point occurs—whether a challenging call, a family sentinel event or a personal life-changing moment.
One challenge many in the fire service are now more openly discussing is whether we're doing an adequate job at early identification of behavioral health needs for our employees and their families—before a need becomes a crisis or reaches that tipping point.
Much has been written on the culture of paramilitary organizations and the strengths of those cultures' fabric in conquering seemingly insurmountable endeavors. However, a growing body of literature, both scientific and anecdotal, suggests that these same cultures may make it very difficult for members of such communities to acknowledge behavioral health issues unilaterally and seek resources, lest it been seen as a sign of weakness.
The notion of trained proactive peer resources, acting as early warning detectors in the culture they're part of, is resonating within mental-health and public-safety circles. The notion of peer mental-wellness coaches is akin to the better-developed peer fitness-coach concept that nurtures physical wellness and aptitude.
The concept is a relatively simple one: to provide peers within the department with appropriate training in recognizing early warning signs and providing peer counseling, as well as offering early accessibility to resources and networks aimed at preventing a behavioral-health crisis.
Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, our profession is one that comes with inherent stress. From battling to rescue trapped victims or colleagues in an engulfed structure to feverishly laboring to save a child from drowning, stress is pervasive.
All individuals avail themselves of coping mechanisms—some healthy and some less so. I recently was with two national colleagues who openly shared stories of fire chief suicides they had experienced early in their careers. Tragically, their stories are no doubt not isolated ones.
Fire departments are inherently very close-knit groups, commonly referring to themselves as a brother and sisterhood. And much like other uniformed services, such as in the military or law enforcement, one member's survival may depend on rescue from colleagues.
We have built-in warning systems of trouble in most all of our equipment—trucks have temperature gauges and low fuel indicators. Why don't we have those similar resources for each other? The time to review our approach and adopt model best practices for behavioral health is now!
This year's Safety and Health Week is an excellent opportunity to pause and review your department members' point of access for mental/behavioral health services. If your department doesn't have robust resources in place to address behavioral wellness, this is an excellent opportunity to assess community partnerships to address this. This may include private mental-health practitioners, your health-insurance providers, local health providers or members of the clergy.
Also during Safety and Health Week, explore the idea of peer behavioral health coaches who serve as trained and trusted, observant members of your department; they may sound the necessary early warning about a need for assistance among your personnel.